Deep baritone thrumming produced by moving machinery deafened us to noises below. It would also conceal the noise we made crossing the catwalk. I stepped out onto the catwalk. We travelled across no-man’s land, in plain sight if anyone cared to look up. I found myself chanting ‘Don’t look up’ repeatedly in my head as though that mantra guaranteed safe passage. Kira grabbed my hand. I froze. A nearly imperceptible head tilt directed my attention below. Two employees took turns pointing to a section of the production line. The compartment of interest was located eight yards to our right and less than thirty feet below. How could they not see us? We were close enough to discern their facial expressions. Kira’s grip tightened on my hand. Without warning, they hunched their shoulders to each other and returned to monitoring their workstations. I gave Kira’s hand a little squeeze and let out the breath I was holding. Four yards farther we came to long and bulky air filtration vents hid us for most of the remaining journey.
Large air handling ducts and filters helped to obscure this portion of the catwalk from those below and allotted us the opportunity to plan the next leg of our journey without worrying about detection. Directly beneath our position, the big stainless-steel hopper and a mixing vat fed the caterpillar line. Until the hoppers needed refilling, this area should remain uninhabited. Nothing else of consequence was located nearby. I surveyed the area for a discreet route down and came away empty. Even if there had been a ladder, I did not relish a slow descent. Kira handed me the last nylon-sheathed rope from her knapsack.
The height of the closest cylinder would leave each of us exposed for the first half of the trip, before shielding us from sight for the last part. Hanging out in the open, exposed even for the short duration required to drop behind the tallest cylinder was risky, but we had no choice. We lay on our stomachs watching the floor, learning worker movement patterns, whispering our observations. Eventually, a repetitive pattern emerged. Just before the forklift picked up the bundle of misted wallboards, another worker reset switches. Yet another person spoke with the forklift truck driver who waited to transport the finished bundle. That made five. Four others busied themselves at individual tasks, while another man whose duties we assigned as a fill-in worker, randomly entered and departed the production area to run workstations for those who required bathroom- and coffee breaks, or so it appeared. We watched for one additional movement cycle to be certain.
When the forklift picked up the bundled wallboard, I dropped the rope. Before it hit the cement, Kira stepped off the catwalk. A high-pitched whine, produced by the rope zipping through her speed bar, keened. Three feet from the ground, she locked the rope off. It stretched, growing tighter than a guitar string before recoiling like a bungee cord and throwing her body upward. Once it began to spring upward, she released the lock and dropped the remaining distance struggling impotently to get her feet beneath her. She failed, which caused her backside to thump onto the cement floor jarring her teeth shut.
Rolling with as much dignity as was left to her to one knee, she rose to her feet rubbing her butt while staring up at me. Narrowed eyes dared me to laugh. I pretended not to have noticed her butt flop, not because I was kind or gallant because she was armed. She nudged her head around the corner of the second largest vat to scan the production floor for alarm. Tense seconds passed before she waved me forward. I stepped off the catwalk. Nylon sheathed fibres zipped through my gloved hands warming my palms. Friction slowed my descent. My feet touched cement. Knees bent to absorb the momentum. A quick rope shake loosened the tension knot tied to the railing. Black and red striped nylon rope fell mutely to the floor in a slithering pile. As I gathered up the rope, spooling it around my elbow and hand, paranoia screamed at me to move. Had my drop been noted? Were people running to flank our position? Had we boxed ourselves in? At the unvoiced questions in my eyes, Kira shook her head. Everybody remained deaf and dumb to our presence.
I dug out an IED (Improvised Explosive Device) from my pack. The device was constructed out of three one-foot long, three-quarter-inch diameter pipes bound tightly in a triangle formation. Black electrician’s tape secured a digital detonator to the pipe cluster. How many minutes should we program the timer? Fifteen? Twenty? What size explosion would the contents of three cylinders produce? Ace had explained each bundle roughly equalled two sticks of dynamite. If for no other reason, forty minutes seemed like a nice round number. I wedged the bundle between the wall and the cylinder.
Kira and I synchronized watches and scuttled out from behind the tall white cylinder. We crossed a stretch of open floor bent low; ears tuned to the sound of the electric forklift engine as it receded down the aisle farthest from us. Beneath the largest, potbellied-shaped stainless-steel mixing vat, the one with eight-foot-long ceramic tines stirring the mucky contents in its gorged belly, and the vibrating dry chemical hopper next to it, we set two additional pipe bombs; their timers programmed to explode three and four minutes prior to the biggest white cylinder sporting the Holy Grail of red caution symbols. Those initial explosions should inject chaos into the plant and urge personnel to leave hastily. After the first two detonations, we had three minutes to evacuate the premises before the grand finale. It was our hope during the initial chaotic exodus, people would be too busy to stop and question three strangers running alongside them to safety.
Using the assembly line as cover, Kira and I low-crawled beneath it, pushing our backpacks along the floor in front of us. Whirling axels, spinning cogs, centrifugal chains and power drives, rotated less than twelve inches from our bodies. The floor, the very air around us, shook as though a freight train rumbled above us. We’d be pulled into the machinery, mangled quicker than tuna reeled into a fishing trawler if one of those spinning dangers snagged clothing. It was nerve-wracking work to low-crawl long-distance across cement. Our shoulder muscles burned with fatigue and elbows ached at the constant impact with cement. Our only relief was to stop and to rest on our stomachs, arms stretched out in front, or held parallel at our sides until they recovered. Our destination appeared. Kira and I stopped to let our muscles re-cooperate.
Scuffed steel-toed safety boots appeared without warning and passed our prone bodies. They halted three yards behind us. The loud clacking and banging of the line blocked other sounds. Another pair of safety boots stopped by the first set. The deafening sounds rendered the specifics of their conversation indecipherable, cloaked and warped by noise. I tapped Kira on the shoulder to move toward our secondary destination.
We wiggled and wormed onward until the main door leading from the plant floor came abreast of us. Washrooms, the cafeteria, the foreman’s office, two storage rooms and the medical room were beyond that door. It allowed access to the far set of stairs leading to the second floor and its offices. Behind us, on the opposite side of the machinery, the workers we passed yet talked. I cautiously poked my head out to look up and down the line. The compartment’s housing rose five feet, sufficiently high to shield us from the men on the other side of the line. We rolled out into the aisle and rose to all fours, imitating baboons knuckle-walking across grassland until we safely entered the doorway and the hallway beyond. Four closed doors, two on either side of the hall, came into view, after which the corridor turned right.
Heavy footsteps sounded from up ahead.
They sent us blindly through the nearest door. We entered a janitor’s closet and eased the door shut at the same time as a black-booted toe cut the corner. Steel whispered out of saya. Hunger to cut emanated from the blade. Safety boots struck the tiled floor, growing louder. Pressing myself against the wall, I waited, steel poised in waki-gamae. Clunking footsteps grew louder before they faded. We allowed five seconds to pass. I opened the door, checked the hallway and slipped out. Kira closed the door behind us.